Ad Space – Ray Bradbury Does Not Approve This Message

You are now entering Ad Space, a realm of commercials, brought before us so we might examine how they work, and discuss why we both love and hate them so. So it is written …

The Product:
Sunsweet prunes

The Promotion:

The Pitch:
Prunes are the food of the future, just ask Ray Bradbury! … Wait, don’t ask Ray Bradbury. Just listen to us!

I’ve talked before about how it’s nearly impossible to tell a parody of commercials apart from the real thing. Well, here we have a case where there’s no confusion about what the ad’s trying to be: it’s a genuine ad for Sunsweet prunes and a pointed, deliberate parody of advertising techniques at the same time.

Which should only be expected, given this ad was created by Stan Freberg. I’ve been meaning to talk about this dude’s commercials for a while, and this is the first of what I plan to be many Ad Spaces doing just that.

Freberg is one of the more influential and well-known figures in advertising, despite their ad work being only one small part of a decades long career as a writer, actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, and all-around comedian. In the early days of TV commercials, Freberg was a revolutionary figure in turning ad spots into pieces of self-satire, poking fun at their own marketing techniques, but in doing so creating ads so funny and memorable, they got the brand name out there.

That Freberg took this approach may have had something to do with their advertising career existing alongside their career making radio and television programs, where advertisers were the people you made concessions to in exchange for funding. Famously, The Stan Freberg Show had a difficult time attracting sponsors (at least after Freberg turned down offers from cigarette companies), and instead of actual commercials, had absurdist parodies, like an ad simply for “Food”.

This combination of insider and outsider perspective on advertising, plus a natural penchant for satire, explains a lot about this ad. Bringing in an award winning science fiction writer (and personal friend of Freberg’s) to tout prunes as the food of the future … only for them to interrupt the narrator and say they’ve never claimed any such thing. Having the whole thing devolve into the narrator trying to re-rail this in a pro-prune direction, despite Bradbury’s evident disinterest and unwillingness to play along. Making the joke entirely at Sunsweet’s expense, implying they’re just a bunch of liars and charlatans trying to use someone else’s good name to hock their wares … and getting Sunsweet to pay them for doing so.

More than anything, it reminds me of how the TV show Community agreed to do product placement for Subway, by turning the Subway corporation into a recurring villain that went to ludicrous lengths promoting their product. That was a far more involved form of biting-the-hand advertising, but we can look to this Freberg ad (and others that we’ll cover in due course) as the pioneers that blazed that trail. And I think we’re all the richer for it.